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24-year-old mayor's personal life story guides political career

By Kate Snow and Jessica Hopper
Rock Center

Svante Myrick, the new 24-year-old mayor of Ithaca, N.Y., shies away from increasingly frequent comparisons to President Obama, but he admits the president’s journey certainly influenced his decision to enter politics.

“Well, if this, you know, guy with that name and those ears can do it, then a guy with this name and these ears can do it,” Myrick said.

When he was just a teenager, Myrick’s grandmother gave him a copy of Barack Obama’s book, “Dreams From My Father.” As a biracial teenager, he found solace and motivation in reading Obama’s story.

“It was so full of things I saw in my own story.  I mean, his struggle with his identity growing up without his father and raised by a white mother in a largely white school district. I mean, he had been through things and he had wisdom,” Myrick said. 

Myrick’s mother is white and his father is African American.  The family was at times homeless. Myrick’s father struggled with drug addiction and faded from his life when he was six years old, Myrick said.   He was raised primarily by his mother and grandparents in a Earlville, N.Y., a tiny town with just one stoplight.  He and his three siblings were the only black kids in the town, Myrick said.

“Our family was the black neighborhood,” Myrick joked. 

Myrick entered politics while still a student at Cornell University.  He was elected to Ithaca’s City Council when he was a junior.  He served on the council for four years before running for mayor.

“Frankly, there’s nothing you can tell people that will show them that you’re ready to do it.  All you can do is point to what you’ve done already,” Myrick told Kate Snow in an interview scheduled to air Wednesday, Feb. 29 on Rock Center with Brian Williams.

While running for mayor, the democrat admits that his age was sometimes a hurdle. He wore out two pairs of shoes canvassing the town of 30,000 people to convince voters to support him.

“When somebody questions your age, it’s not that they’re wondering if you’ve had enough birthdays to do the job.  They’re wondering if you’re dedicated enough, they wonder if you know enough about the city.  They wonder if you have the experience it takes to get things done and if you show them those things, then the age is just a number,” Myrick said.

Along with his political experience, Myrick’s rise from humble beginnings also seemed to resonate with voters.  His mother, Leslie Myrick, worked multiple jobs to support the family. When NBC News interviewed her, she’d just finished an overnight shift at the front desk of a local hotel.

“He’s full of love and has always been full of love,” Leslie Myrick said of her son.

Myrick seems to have gleaned his own wisdom from his upbringing.

“I’m sure it makes you a little tougher.  I’m sure you learn to take advantage of every opportunity you’re given, you know?” Myrick said.  “Because you know what it’s like to not have those opportunities, you know? You learn to recognize an advantage when you see one, I think and it, I don’t know, it’s a motivator.”

Leslie Myrick said that a young Svante devoured books as a child and was a “real charmer.”

She quietly campaigned for her son during his mayoral run, rarely revealing she was his mom when she would knock on a door.

“Ordinarily, I would not tell them, but if I thought they were on the fence and if I thought the personal touch would help, I would tell them,” she said.

Svante Myrick calls his mom a superhero.

“I think she had superpowers to keep all five of us together and to keep us clothed and fed and housed and to get us our first jobs and to get us to practice and back and to get us to these meetings and to get us all off to college safely and soundly and sanely,” Myrick said. 

When Myrick tries to thank his mother, he says she shrugs it off and instead apologizes for what she couldn’t provide for him.

“It’s a feat of human endurance.  It’s up there with, you know, climbing Mount Everest. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen,” Myrick said of his mother. “It’s like she doesn’t know what she did. She saved our lives, all of us.”

Myrick credits his high school teacher, Jonathan Sherry, with pushing him to really think about his future. He said that he wasn’t much of student, but after getting near perfect scores on the SATs, Mr. Sherry encouraged him to apply to Cornell. Myrick had never heard of the Ivy League school which was less than 100 miles away from his family’s home.

“I saw from a young age what he was capable of,” Sherry said.

When Myrick left high school, he left a note behind in a yearbook for Mr. Sherry.

“P.S. In 2040, when I’m president, I’ll keep you in mind for secretary of education,” the note read.

Myrick, like any trained politician, now refuses to talk about any presidential ambitions.

“Ithaca is my home, you know.  This is the place I want to serve, so I’m excited about serving here,” he said.

He’d have to wait 10 years before he’d even be eligible to run for the presidency.

For now, the new mayor still lives like a college student. He has a handful of roommates who live in a house not far from Cornell.

“He doesn’t cook very much, but I know whose peanut butter spoons those are,” said roommate Eddie Rooker.

Myrick and his roommates, all in their twenties, jokingly call the home they share “the hall of justice.”  Under one roof lives Ithaca’s mayor, a city council member and a member of the county legislature.

Despite all of his hard work, Myrick does not consider himself a self-made man. He believes strongly in  the government programs that helped sustain him as a child.

“This is not the story of a self-made man.  This is a story of a community that conspired together to raise, you know, a child.  I mean, that’s the truth,” Myrick said.

Editor’s Note: Kate Snow’s full report, ‘Mr. Mayor,’ airs Wednesday, Feb. 29 at 9 pm/8 c on Rock Center with Brian Williams.